Kingdom eager to face down latest uprising
Ulster teams have troubled Kerry over the last decade and now Donegal get their chance to emulate their provincial rivals’ success, writes SEAN MORAN
THE EARLY years of the GAA didn’t give many clues to what would become a fascinating rivalry. Kerry sustained just one championship defeat against an Ulster county in the first 49 years of the association’s history. Even that comes with its green-and-gold asterisk.
One hundred years ago this month, on the eve of the 1912 All-Ireland semi-final against Antrim, the Munster champions were tempted by the wedding in Dublin of a well-known Kerry man. Weighing the prospective entertainment against what was contemporarily described as a “matter-of-form” match the following day, the team succumbed to temptation.
The same contemporary source ruefully reported the outcome. “But the road to football, or any other success, is the hard and narrow patch. The day following the nuptials the Kerry boys could not play football. Antrim won 3-5 to two points – perhaps the most sensational GAA result of all time.”
There aren’t, however, enough examples of Kerry frivolity to adequately explain the disproportionate difficulty experienced by the greatest of all football counties in playing Ulster opposition. In All-Ireland finals against northern counties, Kerry are coming in at 40 per cent success whereas the balance sheets with the other two provinces are well in credit.
Why? Events like those of 1912 aren’t the mainstay of the statistics. Aside from the fact that it was a semi-final, as was the 1958 match with Derry (see panel), Ulster counties have won their finals against Kerry overwhelmingly because they were better teams with better preparation and tactics.
Even when Ulster counties lost finals to Kerry there were frequently sharp regrets: Cavan’s disallowed ‘winner’ in the 1937 draw, Armagh’s missed penalty in ’53 and Tyrone’s out-of-the blue challenge in ’86.
The last 50 years in particular have brought into focus a clash of styles and traditions that continues this weekend with tomorrow’s eagerly anticipated All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal – the only Ulster county yet to face Kerry in championship.
The modern era has been one in which Kerry’s permanent government has been challenged by new ideas and that narrative begins with Down, the only county with a 100 per cent championship record against Kerry.
Art McRory managed the Tyrone team that threatened a seismic shock in 1986. They led by seven points in the second half before inexperience and injuries combined with the last despairing kick of Mick O’Dwyer’s legendary team to haul Kerry to victory. He remembers the emergence of Down in 1960.
“That Down team was so exceptional that it would have been very successful in any era. They were truly magnificent and didn’t win as many All-Irelands as they should have done
“They were a step ahead of everyone in the early 1960s and had good people in charge, like Maurice Hayes and Barney Carr. I heard Maurice Hayes at a seminar laying out how they had drawn up a five-year plan – A, B and C – to secure success. But they had to have the players.” said McRory.
Down had the players but they also had a curious ebullience for a county with no real tradition. They were both modern and scientific. They dressed uniformly in tracksuits, broke the game down into detail and analysed how to optimise their prospects.
Maurice Hayes, who went on to become a distinguished public servant on both sides of the Border, wrote about the 1960 final in Weeshie Fogarty’s 2007 book on the legendary Kerry trainer Dr Eamonn O’Sullivan, who, although he wasn’t in charge in 1960, had established himself as the foremost thinker in the game.
“Now one of the things we played on for that game was the fact that Dr Eamonn had a theory of zones. People kept to their places and you did not move out of that zone and what we introduced into Gaelic football was mobility. So your full back or half back could move up with the ball and even make or get a score. I think it took Kerry a bit of time to come to grips with this change. In the late 1950s and early 1960s there was a certain static quality about Kerry football.
“Now one of the things we attempted to do was play Mick O’Connell out of the game because Leo Murphy’s kick-outs were so long.” Art McRory amplifies the point: “The one weakness in the Down team was that they didn’t have a big, traditional midfield so they chose to break ball all the time. Their half backs and half forwards had a far greater awareness of this and won a lot of those breaks. They were coached at a time when it was totally and absolutely unknown. Teams ‘trained’ and training was catch and kick.”
In Kerry there developed an indignation at the emerging, new game. Not alone was the county the most successful in the game but it also had established a sort of intellectual copyright on the game.
Founding father Dick Fitzgerald, after whom the stadium in Killarney is named, wrote the very first coaching manual, How to Play Gaelic Football in 1914 and Dr O’Sullivan’s The Art and Science of Gaelic Football was published 44 years later, promulgating the importance of catch-and-kick and fixed position play – the very orthodoxies Down sought to undermine.